ayabe trilogy (part II): spirit possession, mountain snow, counterfeit money


Last year I went to Ayabe to visit my friends Akita and Ai just before the New Year holiday.  It was cold and snowy — winter storms often blow into this area from across the Sea of Japan — and the city had that sense of quiet about it that so many cities in Japan do as the smaller shops shut down so that their owners can spend the holiday season with their families.

I suspect that Ayabe is a fairly quiet city even during the busiest of times; Ayabe, with a population of 36,814, is only a three pachinko parlor town and if you know anything about the Japanese propensity to build pachinko parlors you’ll know immediately how few that is.  But like all cities, if you know where to look there are wonderful spots to be found, including an ancient pharmacy specializing in traditional and Chinese medicine with bags of unfamiliar cure-alls that looked like they’d been undisturbed for at at least 20 years (pictured above); a wonderful café and craft store located inside a traditional wood-beam building where we were able to get some of the most fantastic chai I’ve had in a long time; and a bakery with some of the best European-style breads in Japan.

Because Akita had been stationed in Ayabe as a reporter for the Kyoto Shimbun News he knew the town like the back of his hand, and everyone in the town new him by sight as well.  One of the more interesting places that he and Ai took me to visit was the headquarters of the Oomoto (大本) religion, a “new religion” based in ancient Shinto belief and founded in 1892 by Deguchi Nao, a housewife from Ayabe.  In 1892 Nao became possessed by Ushitora no Konjin and had a vision in which she beheld Konjin enthroned within a series of jeweled palaces.  Konjin is usually considered an evil spirit, but in both Oomoto and the older (and related) Konkōkyō (金光教) Konjin is considered to be benevolent.  In fact, the central belief of Oomoto is that there is a single Divinity in the universe and that all gods, spirits and demons are manifestations of this single Divinity, including L.L. Zamenhof, the inventor of Esperanto.  According to Wikipedia,

Since the time of Onisaburo Deguchi, the constructed language Esperanto has played a major role in the Oomoto religion. Starting in 1924, the religion has published books and magazines in Esperanto and this continues today. Almost all of the 45,000 active members of Oomoto have studied some Esperanto, and around 1,000 are fluent in the language.

Oomoto’s emphasis on spirit possession is something that I find deeply fascinating — especially since spirit possession is linked through the initial spirit vision of Deguchi Nao to the prominent place of women in the Oomoto leadership.  In fact, Japan has a long history of shamanism involving female mediums (in the form of ancient Shinto), as well as a mythic tradition of possession by fox spirits.  From Wikipedia:

Kitsunetsuki (狐憑き or 狐付き; also written kitsune-tsuki) literally means the state of being possessed by a fox. The victim is always a young woman, whom the fox enters beneath her fingernails or through her breasts. In some cases, the victims’ facial expressions are said to change in such a way that they resemble those of a fox. Japanese tradition holds that fox possession can cause illiterate victims to temporarily gain the ability to read. Though foxes in Folklore can possess a person of their own will, Kitsunetsuki is often attributed to the malign intents of hereditary fox employers, or tsukimono-suji.

Folklorist Lafcadio Hearn describes the condition in the first volume of his Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan:

“Strange is the madness of those into whom demon foxes enter. Sometimes they run naked shouting through the streets. Sometimes they lie down and froth at the mouth, and yelp as a fox yelps. And on some part of the body of the possessed a moving lump appears under the skin, which seems to have a life of its own. Prick it with a needle, and it glides instantly to another place. By no grasp can it be so tightly compressed by a strong hand that it will not slip from under the fingers. Possessed folk are also said to speak and write languages of which they were totally ignorant prior to possession. They eat only what foxes are believed to like — tofu, aburagé, azukimeshi, etc. — and they eat a great deal, alleging that not they, but the possessing foxes, are hungry.”

He goes on to note that, once freed from the possession, the victim will never again be able to eat tofu, azukimeshi, or other foods favored by foxes.

Exorcism, often performed at an Inari shrine, may induce a fox to leave its host. In the past, when such gentle measures failed or a priest was not available, victims of kitsunetsuki were beaten or badly burned in hopes of forcing the fox to leave. Entire families were ostracized by their communities after a member of the family was thought to be possessed.

In Japan, kitsunetsuki was noted as a disease as early as the Heian period and remained a common diagnosis for mental illness until the early 20th century. Possession was the explanation for the abnormal behavior displayed by the afflicted individuals. In the late 19th century, Dr. Shunichi Shimamura noted that physical diseases that caused fever were often considered kitsunetsuki. The belief has lost favor, but stories of fox possession still appear in the tabloid press and popular media. One notable occasion involved allegations that members of the Aum Shinrikyo cult had been possessed.

One of the major Oomoto holidays takes place on February 3rd, the date of the traditional Japanese holiday of Setsubun.  As Akita pointed out, however, the interesting thing about the Oomoto version of Setsubun is that it celebrates the day on which Deguchi Nao was possessed by Konjin; in effect, the Oomoto version of Setsubun — in contrast to the commonly celebrated Setsubun ritual in which the demons are ceremonially cast out — is a day on which the letting in of demons (in the form of spirit possession) is celebrated.  Here’s a description of the Setsubun celebration taken from the official Oomoto website:

The Great Purification Ritual on the Japanese Setsubun holiday has been a solemn occurrence within Oomoto since shortly after the religion was founded. Before the ritual, followers write their name and address on a small slip of paper with symbolic human figure printed on it; this paper slip is then used as a representation of the person concerned. These paper slips are collected from all over the country and even from far overseas at Choseiden in Ayabe, where worshippers fill the Hall and spend the night absorbed in ritual prayer. Hundreds of female and male priests pray over each of the slips as they carefully place them into unglazed earthenware jars. More ancient Shinto prayers are recited as these slips are later floated in the pure waters of Wachi River, which courses through Ayabe City. In this way, purification takes place and potential misfortunes are averted.

One of the central tenets of Oomoto is a belief in world peace, and this anti-militaristic attitude resulted in the often brutal repression of Oomoto by the government of pre-WWII Japan.  It probably didn’t help matters that the Oomoto creation myth posits the gods Kunitokodachi no Mikoto and Susano-o no Mikoto as the original creators and rulers of Japan.  According to Oomoto beliefs, Amaterasu Ōmikami — usually considered the founder of Japan and the divine ancestor of the Japanese imperial family — is nothing but an usurper who drove away the true creators of the archipelago.  It’s easy to see how such a belief could be viewed as a threat by an imperial power that justified its right to rule via a mythos of divine succession.

The Oomoto shrine complex in Ayabe is essentially a more contemporary iteration of traditional Shinto shrine architecture.  Akita, Ai, and myself wandered through the halls and were purified by an Oomoto priest wielding a gohei, a kind of wand used for ritual purification, before we were allowed to enter the main hall of worship.  Unfortunately, it was an off day and there was no worship going on, so we just stood in the hall and looked at the altar for awhile before heading back down the hill.  I’m not sure if the older shrine building pictured in the photograph above is actually related to Oomoto or not, but it’s located just down the hill from the Oomoto headquarters and it has beautiful grounds that are very pleasant to walk around in.

One last interesting (and perhaps surprising) note about Oomoto — apparently Oomoto was an early influence on Yamantaka Eye.

After visiting the Oomoto headquarters, Akita and Ai drove me up into the nearby mountains so we could have dinner at a bar that they liked.  The owner of the bar built the place himself and runs the bar as a kind of hobby; his day job is breeding dogs and the entrance to the bar is defined by a wall of photographs of his dogs and framed national prizes for breeding excellence.  Like so many of the residents of Ayabe that Akita was friendly with, he initially met the owner of the bar while on assignment for the newspaper.

At one point during the evening I asked Akita what the most interesting story he had come across since he had started working in Ayabe was.  Although he didn’t break the story himself, he told me that the most interesting story he had heard was about an old man and his wife who had lived out in the countryside for years.  Apparently the husband had gotten hold of some plates for printing money and had been counterfeiting Japanese currency for several decades.  His wife, however, had no idea about this extra-legal source of income and so when, one day, she found a sack containing about 3,000 dollars in fresh bills she simply assumed that her husband had been hiding this money from her for his own purposes.  She promptly took the money down to the bank and deposited into their joint account at which point the police were called and the husband was arrested.  There’s a moral in there somewhere about spousal trust and the sharing of financial information.

It had already begun snowing again as we drove out to the bar, but on the way back the road was completely covered and we had to drive slowly and carefully back.  The roads were slippery and the car was doing that little bit of sliding around that cars always do when there’s snow on the ground and not a studded tire in sight.  Somehow this is more fun and exciting — and yet equally more unnerving — when it’s late at night and you’re driving back into town on mountain roads.  At one point we had to come to a sudden stop to avoid a small stand of bamboo that was weighted down by snow and had fallen into the road.  We were happy when we finally came into sight of the alien, glowing Mini-Stop located right around the corner from Akita and Ai’s apartment.

Once inside we turned on the heat and had some hot tea, as well as bagels that we ate with the most incredibly delicious locally-produced Ayabe honey.  And then it was time for deep futon sleep.

One Response to “ayabe trilogy (part II): spirit possession, mountain snow, counterfeit money”

  1. ‘We all know that Art is not truth. Art is a lie that makes us realize the truth’
    -Pablo Picasso

    I was googling a professor’s contact address and somehow came here.
    That quote was the first thing came up in my mind with having seen this site.

    Beautiful pictures, a beautiful country. Probably I should appreciate what I see every day.

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